‘Good thing you are not alone’, the Los Angeles-based artist Kaari Upson’s first solo museum exhibition in New York City’s New Museum, immediately follows her also having participated and contributed to the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 2017 Biennial, which took place not too far uptown in Manhattan. Timing aside, the exhibition is also notable for its size, promising to be of particular interest in providing a glimpse into what Upson’s been up to in the last number of years, especially since having possibly moved on from the monumental ‘Larry Project’, an omnipresence in her practice since the early 2000s.
Actually, one may find it difficult to see her new work as completely independent of that so-called ‘project’, which has overarched Upson’s work since she was a student in art school. In fact, its language and methodology could be said to have thoroughly informed what is now on view, if it doesn’t turn out to simply be intrinsic to the nature of Upson’s practice and artworks. Much of this is evidenced from the artist’s observably continued interests in the inter-relationships between fictional yet frighteningly intimate or fleshed-out characters and personas, a deep consideration for and exploration of material culture as well as the body – perhaps influenced by social science discourses, and a quaint, absurd, and grotesquely-rendered lens through which to at least view it all, with nods of awareness to the mundanity of everyday life and capitalism. Mostly, instead of foraging these themes through ‘Larry’, Upson’s own mother, or her freely exploratory interpretations of her, haunts this entire exhibition, resulting in a rather genuinely intimate and disturbing narrative.
Upon entering the exhibition space of ‘Good thing you are not alone’, the viewer is immediately met by a series of larger-than-life, almost imposing ‘canvases’ which open it all. They are giant ‘sheets’ absolutely filled-to-the-brim with as many writings as there are drawings, resembling pages ripped straight out of an often-used personal journal and then enlarged. As one progresses through the very multi-media exhibition, these drawings stand out for their distinct appearance, if not medium, while their textual and other visual contents may influence how the other works are taken in. They display a smorgasbord concentration of drawings, or sketches, exactly like ones seen in a personal journal, with writings free-ruminating on (seemingly) social anxieties of the modern persuasion and other related subjects. The installation in the middle of the space they surround, meanwhile, seems to become just as relevant towards the end of the exhibition. It resembles an ancient ruin as much as it does either a throwaway or about to be utilised interior skeleton of a modern structure, and has a haunting effect.
Contrasting in so many ways to the opening portion of the exhibition that it follows, the next room contains within it the entire show’s most ambitious and consistent arrangement of works. ‘Hers’ (2017) frames almost the entire space, a playful replica of the giant shelves at stores like Costco, filled with doll or mannequin-like, fully-clothed, life-size replicas of the character Upson plays in all of the videos, ‘Recluse Brown’ and ‘Crocodile Mother’ (both 2017) inspired by herself and her mother, that wander through the aisles of Costco, forests or dry fields resembling deserts. Interspersed throughout are cat beds and endless copies of ‘An Idiot’s Guide To…’ books. Further into the exhibition, Upson plays on a recurring motif in some of her works, the Pepsi can, greyed copies arranged to support objects resembling either legs of meat, teeth, crystals or refuse. The ambiguity makws one uncomfortable, surrounded by the types of thoroughly corrupted, manipulated and in some ways, re-purposed furniture she contributed to the Whitney Biennial. She closes the exhibition with the return of her flannel and jeans mother-daughter character in another video, this time touring, getting lost in, a tract house in Las Vegas.
With deeply private portions of a personal journal revealed, a recurring character inspired by the artist and her mother who also eerily lacks a sense of self, and installation works so impersonal in their depictions of familiar objects of material culture and everyday life, the effect of ‘Good thing you are not alone,’ is nothing if not at first vaguely phantasmagoric. It leaves the viewer haunted by way of the personal, the familiar and the everyday, and it is powerful.